- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 15, 2000

McCain plays by his own

There are, let's face it, a number of Republicans who can't stand John McCain and are very unhappy about the prospect of a runaway train delivering the GOP nomination to him. Now, in any campaign, especially a competitive one, political passions are going to run high. But the specific character of the antipathy toward Mr. McCain is worth looking into.
Some of it derives from Mr. McCain's stands on the issues, especially campaign-finance reform. This is not just a matter of money although the prospect of McCain-style reform does terrify the party's top donors, who wonder how Republicans will get their message out, given what they universally believe to be a media culture that favors Democrats and does not understand or empathize with Republicans. It's also a principle. Democrats routinely deride the notion as a fig leaf, but as Republicans see it, there is excellent reason to think reform of the kind Mr. McCain wants is a blow to the First Amendment. How much does freedom of speech mean if government can shut off the means of propagating it?
Other McCain issues also rankle with some Republicans. Tobacco is one, taxes are another. But the problem is less a matter of each particular position Mr. McCain has taken, nor even the sum of them. After all, in innumerable areas, Mr. McCain has taken positions that are quite orthodox with regard to the party's collective wisdom. If one weighed the deviationism against the orthodoxy, Mr. McCain would come out a fairly conservative Republican. But that's not the point. What rankles Republicans is that Mr. McCain is not, shall we say, a team player. He seems wholly indifferent to the workings of coalition politics as Republicans usually practice it.
This coalition politics consists of gathering together relevant players, insiders and outsiders alike politicians, interest groups, lobbyists, activists, etc. asking them what their top priorities are, ensuring that those priorities do not conflict with each other (sometimes by urging players to modify their wishes), then working to advance them as a whole. Each player supports, where possible, the priorities of the other players, in exchange for support on one's own priorities. Where support is impossible, for whatever reason, silence is expected, not vocal opposition. That's how you get the George W. Bush tax cut, for example. For the family groups, there's the marriage penalty repeal. For the small business types, there's the inheritance tax repeal. For supply-siders, there's a cut in rates at all levels. It's a kind of consensus document.
Mr. McCain, by contrast, acts like, well, a United States senator. He is answerable to the voters of Arizona every six years, and that's that. Some senators are exemplary practitioners of coalition politics. Sens. Paul Coverdell and Ted Kennedy come to mind. But senators need not be, because of the nature of the Senate itself. It's a body that consists ultimately of 100 feudal barons and the relations each has with the others. There are, of course, partisan interests. There are also sectional interests, interests related to local economic activity, and above all, interests of personal concern to the senator.
If Mr. McCain sometimes seems not to have thought out the details of his domestic program, it is perhaps because he hasn't had to. Senators do what they want to do. They have available to them their party's collective wisdom on any given subject, but nothing makes them embrace it. Mr. McCain often hasn't.
To return for purposes of illustration to the issue of taxes, Mr. McCain has a tax cut on offer, and it's smaller than Mr. Bush's. Obviously, therefore, they are going to be critical of each other's respective plans. But note that Mr. McCain voiced his criticism of Mr. Bush in terms that a Democratic senator might use: too much for the rich. That's not a team-player line of attack.
This is the real source of the intraparty antipathy to Mr. McCain. It's an open question precisely how much Mr. McCain's independence contributes to his appeal with moderates, liberals and Republicans who aren't politically engaged enough to notice. Probably a fair bit; one of his strengths is that he does not seem beholden to anyone.
But for many Republican coalition players, that is precisely the problem: They are the ones to whom he is not beholden. They are the ones whose concerns he has blithely ignored and continues to ignore with impunity as he comes closer and closer to toppling the coalition candidate.
What happens if Mr. McCain keeps winning? Does he fracture the party, or does it eventually unite behind him? Does he need the support of the GOP coalition in order to win in November? Does there come a point at which he courts it? Or do its elements come to him, once the writing is on the wall, with offers of help in exchange for a hearing?
Or is the breach irreparable, the act of overthrowing the coalition candidate too much like regicide? Will the coalition GOP fight Mr. McCain to the death, surrender or sue for peace?
At this point in this most fascinating campaign season, anyone who claims to know the answers to these questions is just guessing.



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